by Bill Gustin
It has become a Thanksgiving tradition: Every year an increasing number of Americans will deep fry, rather than roast, their Thanksgiving turkeys. Unfortunately, some of these turkey chefs will suffer serious burns and damage their homes when their turkey fryer catches fire.
A common cause of turkey fryer fires is oil's overflowing the cooking pot and igniting from the gas burner below. This is caused by overfilling the pot with cooking oil, not allowing sufficient room for the turkey. When the turkey is immersed, the oil spills over.
Another cause of overflow is immersing a partially frozen or wet turkey into oil heated to 350°F. Any water on the turkey immediately flashes to steam, expands hundreds of times in volume, and violently expels oil from the pot. Fires can also occur from overheating the oil to its ignition temperature, because the fryer has no thermostatic controls. Also, consider that a pot of oil on a gas burner is extremely top heavy, thus it can easily be tipped over.
Most turkey fryers are fueled by a 20-pound liquid propane (LP) gas cylinder connected by a short length of hose that can burn through, adding propane to the fire. The LP cylinder makes a turkey fryer fire much more dangerous for firefighters. Flames from burning oil impinging on the cylinder can cause a boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) in a few minutes; this could be sufficient time for firefighters to arrive and position themselves within the range of flying cylinder fragments, a fire ball, and shock wave.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratory (UL) strongly advise not to fry turkeys on porches or close to buildings, but this advice is rarely taken. Turkeys are commonly fried on rear porches or decks constructed entirely of wood. Consider that many decks are built over a walk-out basement; consequently, burning oil can readily spread fire under the deck. Fire spread is hastened when fire burns up combustible wood or vinyl siding and ultimately extends to the attic through vents in the overhanging roof soffit. (CLICK HERE to see a turkey fryer fire video from UL.)
A turkey fryer fire that spreads to a large wooden deck poses a significant exposure hazard to the house. Protection of the house is paramount, but that does not mean firefighters should advance the first attack hoseline through the front door. Protecting the house by attacking through the uninvolved side sounds like a good idea, but in reality it can delay getting water on the fire because the hose must be snaked through the house. Additionally, once the hoseline reaches the rear of the house, firefighters will have to operate their stream through a window or sliding-glass door at an extreme angle to extinguish the burning deck and siding. Firefighters advancing through the front door may be tempted to step out a back or sliding-glass door to the deck for a better vantage point. This can be dangerous, because the fire-damaged deck may collapse.
A rear-deck fire caused by a turkey fryer demands a rapid application of water to protect the house and prevent a BLEVE. Consider stretching the first hoseline to the rear and operating it from a flanking position at a corner with a side wall (the B-C/2-3 corner, for example). Operating at a corner places firefighters in a position of relative safety if the LP cylinder should BLEVE, because they can take cover behind the side wall.
Firefighters' first priority is to determine if the LP cylinder is in danger of a BLEVE. Signs of an impending BLEVE include a flame issuing from the tank that increases in height and a jet-like sound that increases in volume. Firefighters must rapidly cool an LP cylinder that may BLEVE by applying a stream of water to cool the tank's upper vapor space. Success in cooling an LP cylinder can be recognized by a reduction in flame height and noise issuing from the tank; hopefully, the cooling is reducing the tank's internal pressure to a point that the relief valve closes.
Once the BLEVE danger has been averted, you can concentrate on preventing fire extension into the house. Direct a stream almost parallel with the rear wall, washing the underside of the soffit. This will stop fire from extending into the attic and allow water to cascade down the burning siding and onto the deck.
Operating the stream almost parallel with the rear wall reduces the risk of pushing smoke, heat, or steam into the house. A large wooden deck can fuel a significant volume of fire, necessitating the reach and gallons per minute of a 2 ½-inch handline or portable master stream device.
As for the cooking oil, the fire will consume most of it. Any oil remaining in the pot can be extinguished by shutting off gas to the burner and gently applying dry chemical. Cover the pot, if possible, to prevent the hot oil from reflashing. Never aim the water directly into the pot, because rapidly expanding steam will violently expel burning oil and spread the fire.
Advance a second hoseline through the front door as soon as possible to extinguish fire that may have extended into the house. Be sure to thoroughly examine the attic, as fire may have extended up the exterior siding into the soffit. Also consider that many decks are built over a walk-out basement; thus, a two-story house, as viewed from the front, is actually a three-story house in the rear. Firefighters entering through the front door must check for fire below them that may have spread from the deck to the basement.
Hopefully, efforts to educate the public on the hazards of frying turkeys will reduce the number of fires and burn injuries this Thanksgiving. That's something all firefighters would be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving.
BILL GUSTIN, a 33-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue and lead instructor in his department's officer training program. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and teaches fire training programs in Florida and other states. He is a marine firefighting instructor and has taught fire tactics to ship crews and firefighters in Caribbean countries. He also teaches forcible entry tactics to fire departments and SWAT teams of local and federal law enforcement agencies.
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